The East Hampton Grace Estate overlooking the Northwest Harbor with its magnificent sunsets is a secluded tract of land totaling nearly 300 acres bordering both Cedar Point Park and a 517 acre nature preserve. This is about as far as one can get from civilization in East Hampton, and there are only 30 homes there situated in relative isolation about 10 miles from the Village and the ocean beaches. But this is where you will find Broadway producers, Stewart F. Lane and his lovely wife Bonnie Comley, every summer for the past eight years. They and their five children pull up stakes from the Eastside of Manhattan and move from their duplex penthouse to a rambling French Chateau that sits on over 4 acres of property surrounded by reserve at the end of a long winding drive.
Bonnie and Stew have been working along side one another professionally for almost 10 of the dozen years they have been married, alternating between theater and film & television projects. As a tribute to their impressive accomplishments as a team, they will be honored on Tuesday February 2 at the Drama League’s annual star studded benefit gala. The evening at New York’s famed Rainbow Room high above Rockefeller Plaza called “A Musical Celebration of Broadway” will be hosted by two two-time Tony Award winners, Christine Ebersole and Donna Murphy. The show will highlight the careers of the unique duo, Lane and Comley, along with past Broadway productions helmed by alumni of the Drama League Directors Project celebrating its 25th anniversary. The Director’s Project helps talented early and mid-career directors as they make the transition from the academic training world to success in the professional arena.
In person the Broadway power couple are casual and down to earth, both possessed with instinctively generous and gregarious personalities. He is known as the self proclaimed “Mr. Broadway,” a veteran of scores of Broadway shows dating as far back as 1979. He also has produced many West End London productions in addition to his numerous film and television credits. Their original Broadway musicals and revivals are invariably nominated for Tony and Drama Desk Awards, as well as Olivier Awards when mounted across the Atlantic in England.
Together five of their shows have taken home the coveted Tony Award: La Cage Aux Folles (1984), The Will Rogers Follies (1991), Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002) and their joint productions of Jay Johnson: The Two and Only (2006) and the current hit The 39 Steps, last season’s winner of the 2007 Tony and Drama Desk Awards for unique theatrical experience, which is moving to the Helen Hayes Theater this week.
This past season alone the couple has brought Broadway acclaimed productions like the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, as well as the hit new musical Legally Blonde with Laura Bell Bundy, which ran almost 600 performances. And there was a Broadway production of the classic Cyrano de Bergerac with Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner, which after a brief legit run they produced on television for PBS – Great Performances, where it aired this past January 7, 2009. Unfortunately their production this past season of David Mamet’s American Buffalo with John Leguizamo and Cedric the Entertainer didn’t find an audience.
Mr. Lane, a co-owner of the Palace Theater with the Nederlander Organization since the early 1980s, however, had other surprises up his sleeve. He hosted on Liza’s at the Palace, the smash hit limited run “star turn” by Liza Minnelli that paid tribute to her marvelous god mother Kay Thompson this past December. And Stew’s book “Let’s Put On A Show,” which was published just last year, has recently been released as a “how to” on DVD” from Working Arts Library.
Thinking about all these projects you wonder how they manage with five children, ranging in age from Eli (24), their eldest daughter who wants to be an actress, to their youngest (2 ½ year old twins), Lenny and Frankie. On the surface everything looks like great fun, but you know nothing is as easy as it seems. One of their secrets is making an effort to keep the entire family together as much as possible, which cannot be easy considering the wide range in their children’s ages. The middle children are daughters, Harly a senior in high school and an 11 year old Leah.
However, to encourage togetherness in the summer, they bought their home in the Grace Estate a little over eight years ago. The sprawling spec house they purchased from builder John Woodsma becomes their home and office for the entire summer. The family moves in at the beginning of June and ensconce themselves until after Labor Day. With the family in tact and room for guests, they run their operations from East Hampton, but of course the city is close enough, if for some reason they need to take a meeting in town.
Their passion for theater and life apparently drive them as they navigate what must be quite a bumpy ride. Yet they always appear upbeat and colorful in their style with an enthusiasm that is contagious. You might say the couple is larger than life, but only in the most positive ways. Even their presence feels large. At over six feet Stew is a tall slightly stocky man boasting an ever welcoming smile and an extended hand. Standing at about 5’ 7” Bonnie, a smart articulate woman with a keen sense of humor, reminds me a bit, physically, of an oversized Barbie. And I sometimes jokingly refer to her as Mrs. Mammary because of her luscious oversized bosoms, which all kidding aside must have been a handicap to being taken seriously in her chosen profession.
Bonnie is a bit more risky than Stew, who by his own words tends “to be more conservative.” But their spirits balance each other nicely and Bonnie said “They share similar tastes.” But I wondered how they resolved their conflicts and what kind of challenges they encounter. Speaking with them separately I discovered they do influence one another, but their biggest challenge is deciding exactly what project to take on and when. Stew has an affinity for the theater and Bonnie has a leaning towards film and television. Stew said “When we are working in theater Bonnie will more readily defer to me and I will more readily defer to her when we work in television.” He said “There is a documentary about horses that Bonnie wants to do, but that’s on hold right now.”
Their current project, a new musical Stormy Weather based on the life of the legendary Lena Horne is their top priority. The horses will remain on the back burner a while until the musical has run its course. Stormy Weather starring Leslie Uggams as the American Icon Lena Horne, who blazed a glamorous trail for African/Americans, will open on Friday January 30 at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. The musical has classic songs by Cole Porter, Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer, Rodgers & Hart, Jerome Kern, Billy Strayhorn and more.
Just back from a trip out West to check up on the show’s progress, Lane was excited about his prospects. Although, he said “the evening is running way too long,” he was optimistic calling the show “an embarrassment of riches,” Further, he was felt that by opening on Friday they would trim the show considerably as part of the process. Out of town tryouts will hopefully provide good reviews to garner enthusiasm for bringing Stormy Weather to Broadway, where Stew and Bonnie would like to see it.
By: Gordin & Christiano